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Judge Who Protected Religious Freedom in KY Confirmed to Top Fed Appeals Court

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A divided Senate approved the nomination of 38-year-old Justin Walker to serve on a top federal appeals court on Thursday.

The 51-42 vote in favor of Justin Walker’s confirmation was nearly along party lines. Maine Sen. Susan Collins was the only Republican to oppose Walker.

Walker, a protege of both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, will be the youngest member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit when he joins the court in September.

The court is widely considered the second-most powerful in the nation and frequently serves as a launching pad for a seat on the Supreme Court. Four current justices, including Kavanaugh, served on the D.C. circuit.

McConnell said that, in his short time as a federal judge, Walker has shown his intelligence and legal acumen. The GOP leader and other Republicans praised Walker’s ruling that allowed a Kentucky church to hold drive-through Easter services despite the state’s stay-at-home order.

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In a floor speech before Thursday’s vote, McConnell called Walker “a widely admired legal expert and proven judge” who deserves quick promotion to the appeals court, less than a year after he began serving as a federal judge in western Kentucky.

“My fellow Kentuckians and I are sorry to part with this son of the Bluegrass, but mostly we are proud, because Judge Walker will be putting his legal brilliance and his exceptional judicial temperament to work not just for his home state, but for our entire nation, and in even more consequential ways,” McConnell said.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said before the vote that McConnell should “go home to Kentucky” and tell voters “why he nominated someone who wants to repeal our health care law when the COVID crisis is hurting people there as it is everywhere else.

“In the middle of a national public health crisis, the Republican Senate majority is poised to confirm a judge who opposes our country’s health care law,” Schumer said.

Do you support Justin Walker's confirmation?

Walker, who was confirmed as a federal judge last October, declined a request by Senate Democrats to recuse himself on matters related to health care law if confirmed to the appeals court.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois called Walker’s nomination a travesty and an affront to other, more qualified conservative judges.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Walker “does not have the experience we would expect of a nominee to the D.C. Circuit” and noted that Walker told the committee he has not presided over a bench or jury trial.

Walker has also argued that “federal agencies have too much power when it comes to protecting the environment, consumers and the workplace,” Feinstein said, and “has made a number of overtly political remarks” even after becoming a judge.

At his hearing last month, Walker defended comments he made during a March speech in which he praised Kavanaugh, for whom he clerked when he was on the D.C. appeals court.

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“In Kavanaugh’s America, we will not surrender while you wage war on our work, or our cause, or our hope, or our dream,″ Walker said in the speech.

Walker, a graduate of Duke University and Harvard Law School, also worked as a lawyer in Louisville and Washington.


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